Le Lucernaire

Le Lucernaire is a “national center for the arts and experimentation” in the 6th arrondissement of Paris, between Saint-Germain-des-Prés and Montparnasse. It includes three theaters, three cinemas, a bookshop, a restaurant, a bar and an art gallery.

I first heard of the Lucernaire when I attended a play at the Théâtre Liberté in Toulon and learned that the same play had earlier been performed repeatedly at the Lucernaire in Paris.

Le Lucernaire

In July 2014 I found a hotel that was just a block away from the Lucernaire (as an American I still tend to think in blocks, even though that makes no sense in a city like Paris), so after checking in to the hotel I walked over to the Lucernaire to see what they had on offer.

Fortunately the Lucernaire performs all year round, even in the summer. They have three theaters and each one can accommodate two or three shows each evening, so they had several plays on the playbill.

I hadn’t heard of any of these plays, so I just chose one that had a funny name: Les amnésiques n’ont rien vécu d’inoubliable (The amnesiacs haven’t experienced anything unforgettable). I bought a ticket for that one, to be performed at eight o’clock the same evening. With my senior discount, the ticket cost me 20 Euros instead of 30.

The book by Hervé Le Tellier

In their bookshop, I noticed that they had a book of the same title, so I bought it and read about a third of it before the play started. This was a good idea, because I wouldn’t have understood some of the more subtle parts if I hadn’t read them beforehand.

In the book, a woman asks the same question over and over again, a thousand times, and the man she is involved with gives a thousand different answers, some silly, some profound, some provocative, some conciliatory. The question is one that can be asked in all sorts of different ways and with different intentions:

À quoi tu pense?
(What are you thinking?)

Of the thousand answers in the book, they chose one hundred and fifty for the play, which lasts about an hour. 

In the Red Theatre. The toilet on the right is part of the stage set.

When the audience comes into the theatre (the “Red Theatre” with 118 seats), the actor Etienne Coquereau is alone — apparently — in the bathtub, where he is covered with foam and reading a paperback book. Soon a woman’s voice starts asking À quoi tu pense?, but we don’t know where the voice is coming from. His first answer is Je pense à toi (I’m thinking of you).

After a while the actress Isabelle Cagnat has a fantastic entrance. One of her legs comes up out of the depths of the bathtub, where she has apparently been hiding all along. After two or three more questions and answers her other leg comes up and finally the rest of her emerges, wearing goggles and a mismatched bikini, and she goes on asking the same question.

Among his many answers: “I think that no caterpillar ever imagined it would someday be a butterfly.” Or: “I think all mushrooms are edible, some only once.” Or: “I think that in the State of Mississippi we would both be in jail right now, after what we have just done.” Or: “I think I have been reproached for writing my love letters on a computer and printing them out. But what did she expect me to do, re-copy the text from the screen?”

At one point she seems to be strangling him and drowning him in the bathtub, but evidently she was only playing, because he comes up alive and goes on answering the question.

Entrance to the Lucernaire

Near the end they suddenly realize that they have to get dressed to go out, so they do so very quickly and then they are standing together facing the audience, fully dressed.

“What are you thinking?” “I’m thinking of you and me.”

“And now, right away, without hesitation, what are you thinking?” “I’m thinking of me. And you?”

That is the end of the book, but the stage director Frédéric Cherboeuf has added one more silent bit to finish the play. The man pulls a jewelry box out of his pocket and offers her a wedding ring. She looks horrified, whispers something in his ear and runs off into the darkness.

Of course we couldn’t hear what she whispered, but we know what it must have been: À quoi tu pense?

While I was travelling in the south of France I gradually read the other two-thirds of the book. Two weeks later I returned to Paris and went back to the Lucernaire to see the play again, and this time I understood just about everything. (And I have “liked” Isabelle Cagnat’s fan page on Facebook, so I can be informed of her future projects.)

One of the answers in the book that was not included in the play had to do with the author’s family name, Le Tellier. This is a somewhat unusual name (only the 468th most common family name in France, to be exact), but I knew I had seen it somewhere before, and when I read this answer on page 178 I finally realized where:

“I am thinking I have the same name as the bastard who revoked the Edict of Nantes, and whom people have fortunately forgotten, otherwise it would be like being called Hitler.”

This is a reference to King Louis XIV’s war minister Louvois, whose full name was François Michel Le Tellier, Marquis de Louvois (1641–1691), in other words “Le Tellier” was his family name. I have read a lot about Louvois because he was the immediate superior of Vauban. For decades, all of Vauban’s reports and letters from around the borders of France were addressed to Louvois, who either did or did not pass them on to the King, as he saw fit.

Of course it was Louis XIV himself who actually revoked his grandfather’s tolerant Edict of Nantes, but Louvois was one of the two people who most strongly advised him to do this, the other being the King’s confessor, François de la Chaise (for whom the Père Lachaise Cemetery in Paris was later named).

Les Misérables at the Lucernaire

In 2017 and 2018 I returned to the Lucernaire and saw some more shows there, for instance an adaptation of the novel Les Misérables by Victor Hugo, adapted and directed by Manon Montel. I was curious to see how she would condense an 1800-page novel into a 90-minute play.

The solution was to “re-center” the story on one of the minor characters, Madame Thénardier, and let her narrate from her point of view. She also plays the accordion between scenes.

Madame Thénardier is the innkeeper’s wife and the mother of Éponine and Gavroche, among other children. In the novel she is quite an unsavory character (like her husband), but she is more sympathetic as the narrator and accordion player in this stage version.

Since I had recently read the novel (all 1800 pages, in French!) I had no trouble understanding what was going on.

Lobby and bookshop in the Lucernaire

Another show I saw at the Lucernaire in 2017 was a contemporary play called Le Déni d’Anna (The Denial of Anna), written and directed by Isabelle Jeanbrau. I bought the text at the Lucernaire bookshop and read the first act before show time, so I had no trouble following what was being said.

Le Déni d’Anna

Anna doesn’t actually appear in the play, because she has just died when the play begins, but she is “interpreted by the music,” performed by a guitarist and a drummer who are on stage.

Anna was the mother, wife, niece and granddaughter of the characters who actually appear, and the story has to do with their unwillingness or inability to mourn her death. The adults, especially the husband, try to carry on as if nothing has happened, so they are frantically living a lie.

Twenty years later the children, now grown up, come and ask for the urn with their mother’s ashes, so they can finally give her a proper burial. Their father, who has misplaced the urn, is against having a funeral, saying it would be too expensive, but the children insist that they can afford it (on a les moyens) and that some things are more important than money. When the urn is finally found and the funeral is over, the father finally starts sobbing uncontrollably and says to his daughter “I’m unhappy, Diane, I’m so unhappy.” And she answers “Me too, Papa.” So the family finally starts to mourn Anna’s death, after twenty years.

Wallace Fountain and box office in the Lucernaire

As a fan of both operas and cycling, I was of course determined to see the show Orphée et Eurydice à bicyclette (Orpheus and Eurydice on bicycles) that was playing at the Lucernaire in January 2018. This “musical fantasy” was written by Pierre Lericq, who also performed it along with Marie Réache.

Orpheus and Euridice on bicycles

The two of them play all the roles in the piece: they are Orpheus and Eurydice, of course, but also the parents of Orpheus and various other characters, like an Italian film director and a clueless female teenage talent show contestant. As in all the shows I have seen at the Lucernaire so far, this was all done with the utmost precision and professionalism.

In the original mythology from ancient Greece, Orpheus is the world’s best singer. His lovely bride, Euridice, dies from a snakebite on their wedding day. Orpheus, inconsolable, sings his way into the underworld and gets permission to bring Euridice back to life with him, but under one condition, that on the way up he must not look back to see if she is following him. After a while he gives in to temptation and glances back, and she is lost forever.

All you loyal readers of my post Monteverdi in Cremona might recall that the world’s first full-scale opera, or one of the first, was L’Orfeo by Claudio Monteverdi, composed in 1607. I have seen L’Orfeo several times at the Bockenheimer Depot in Frankfurt am Main, as staged by David Hermann, and once, in a very different production by John Dew, in Darmstadt. More recently, I saw a brilliant production of L’Orfeo (saw it twice, in fact, because I liked it so much) done by young singers, dancers and musicians at the opera house in Reims, France.

I have also seen the best-known parody of this story, Orpheus in the Underworld by Jacques Offenbach, as described in my post Rostock twenty years later.

So I was well prepared to see the musical fantasy version at the Lucernaire, even though I didn’t have the chance to read the text beforehand. And yes, they really did have two bicycles on stage, two stationary bicycles that they pedaled vigorously while singing just as vigorously.

Program leaflet from the Lucernaire

Address of the Lucernaire: 53 Rue Notre-Dame des Champs, 75006 Paris.
Métro: Notre-Dame des Champs (line 12) or Vavin (line 4).
Vélib’ bicycle station 6006 (hopefully soon to be re-installed): 41 Rue Notre-Dame des Champs.

My photos in this post are from 2014, 2017 and 2018. I revised the text in 2018.

See more posts on theatres in Paris.

4 thoughts on “Le Lucernaire”

  1. Hi Don, Nice find for you – we stayed 5 nights in St Germain des Pres 2014 and often walked to Montpanasse. Nice area with plenty to see and do! Have a great 2018 – plenty of Opera, safe travels.

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